‘I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it’.
From 1975 to 1979, the Communist Khmer Rouge regime killed an estimated two million Cambodians (almost a quarter of the population) via execution, forced labour, starvation and disease. In its effort to create an agrarian utopia families were forcibly evicted from their homes in the cities and ‘relocated’ to the countryside where they ultimately perished. Intellectuals, the middle classes and those loyal to the former regime were all branded ‘Enemies of the State’ and were to be killed. First They Killed My Father tells the tragic yet inspiring story of one family’s struggle to survive.
The story centres on the Ung family, a large middle class family who, prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover, were living a comfortable life in the capital, Phnom Penh. Loung (the narrator) is just five years old when Khmer Rouge tanks roll into the city and ruthlessly snatch away her childhood and life as she knows it. Confusion turns to panic as the family hurriedly gathers their belongings and flees the city. As a middle class family with ties to the former regime (Loung’s father worked for the former Lon Nol government) they are ‘Enemies of the State’ and flee for their lives. They never return.
As the family travels further and further away from their home, slowly but surely precious pieces of their former lives are snatched and destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. First, their home. Then, their identity. In order to survive, the family eschews its middle class background and reinvent themselves as a family of peasants. At several points in the book Loung provides the reader with particularly painful examples of this destruction of her former life. Upon their arrival in the town of Ro Leap, Loung recounts the pain she felt as a Khmer Rouge soldier sets alight the red dress which her mother had made her for a New Year celebration. She grieved not for the dress as much as for what the dress represented. The happy and carefree childhood she once had.
However, it is not just memories and material possessions which are cruelly snatched from Loung by the Khmer Rouge regime. In the space of four years Loung’s family of nine is reduced to five, with one family member after another perishing to the regime. Each time she is unable to grieve. To grieve is to show weakness. To show weakness will get you killed. After the death of Loung’s older sister Keav, her father encourages the family to ‘forget her death and continue…it is the only way we will survive’. Despite everything Loung continuously expresses an overwhelming desire to live. This is fuelled not by an innate desire to be alive but rather by the hatred and anger she has towards the Khmer Rouge regime. It is this anger which keeps her alive.
Whilst death and destruction pervades this tragic story, First They Killed My Father is ultimately a tale of hope. It is a story of how one five year old girl manages to survive one of the worst genocides in recent history. It is a testament to all those who did not live to tell the tale.
Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2001, Mainstream Publishing)